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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

On Field Events and Wise Use of Resources

I remember hearing a while back that some Hollywood types were seriously pursuing making a movie out of Micheal Lewis' Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.  Apparently the plan has been shelved.  Too bad, as it might have doubled the number of watchable movies about statistical analysis (21 being the other one).

The central point of Moneyball, though, isn't using newfangled statistics to get ahead of the competition.  It's a very old idea: when you have limited resources, you don't waste them.  When you can get good things cheap, make the best of them.

Track and field in general, and in the United States in particular, needs to really examine this issue.  While last week's USATF Championships saw many stars skip the meet because there wasn't enough payoff, every single one of the top field-eventers were there.  The two biggest stories of the weekend were Chaunte Lowe's amazing single-day high jump/long jump double and Kara Patterson's American Record javelin throw.

The new Diamond League setup and its mandated slate of events has really expanded competitive opportunities in the field events.  And, unlike sprinters or distance runners, those athletes never duck each other.  Rest assured that even if there's only a small paycheck to be earned, throwers and jumpers will be there.

Look at this weekend's Prefontaine Classic.  You've got an international field of men's discus throwers that we just aren't used to seeing around these parts.  You've got all the top men's shot putters save Andrei Mikhnevich and Maris Urtans.  You've got Dwight Phillips and Fabrice LaPierre, the top two long jumpers in the world (according to my rankings). The women's pole vault is absolutely loaded, topped by Jen Suhr and Fabiana Murer, the second- and fourth-highest vaulters of all time.  The top three women's hammer throwers are all there.  And in the women's javelin throw, you've got Barbora Spotakova versus Mariya Abakumova, whose 2008 Olympic battle Spotakova considered payback for the Soviets crushing the Prague Spring.  The field events should be by far the best part of the meet, even better than the loaded fields in the men's mile and 5k.

The field events are where you get great competition at a low price.  Sprinters and distance runners get outsized attention and therefor outsized appearance fees.  Discus throwers, on the other hand, come mighty cheap.

It is imperative, then, that professional-level meets make sure that the spectators in the stadium and the television viewers at home see what's going on with the field events.  Based on what I saw in-stadium way back at the 2001 Worlds, and from what I see on BBC webcasts, this is done very well overseas.  But here in America, we are our usual wasteful selves.

I read a lot of complaints about the adidas Grand Prix in New York, citing difficulties following the field events due to a substandard scoreboard and poor announcing.  What I do know for sure is that if you watched it on TV, you would have thought there were only two field events contested: the women's pole vault and long jump.  There were in fact eight field events, and they were tremendous.  The expense of bringing in names like Steve Hooker, Malte Mohr, Renaud Lavillenie, Teddy Tamgho, Christian Olsson, Phillips Idowu, Andreas Thorkildsen, Tero Pitkamaki, Valerie Vili, Natallia Mikhnevich and Sandra Perkovic was completely wasted.

I'm willing to bet that Nike's outlay to bring in those jumpers and throwers will be pretty much flushed down the toilet due to bad TV work.  At least the 12,000+ people in the stands will be treated well, though--and, considering that, is it any wonder they keep on coming back?

The Diamond League has led to one more change this year: broadcasters who had previously shown only the Golden League meets now pick up all fourteen meets in the series.  So, for the first time, CBC will be broadcasting the Prefontaine Classic at the same time that NBC is.  Those of us lucky enough to be able to watch both might want to compare and contrast.

Bottom line: we don't have money to waste in track & field.  Field events will always give you more bang for the buck.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Sunday Evening Decathlete

What did we learn this week at the USA Track and Field Championships?

Chaunte Lowe is the new star.  An American Record win in the high jump (2.05), and then immediately following that she took second in the long jump.  That kind of two-event ability is basically unheard of.  I have no idea if she's planning on doing much, if any, long jumping over the remainder of the season, but on the high jump alone she's getting deserved attention. 

Des Moines should not get the 2016 Olympic Trials.  Drake tends to bring in the crowds, as the Drake Relays has sold out for 45 straight years, the Iowa High School Championships are the best-attended in the country, and two years ago they broke the NCAA Championships attendance record.  But the attendance here was very disappointing, failing to get 10,000 fans in on any day, even when hometown hero Lolo Jones was running.  That, along with the long throws being held outside the stadium and a seating capacity of only 14,500, should disqualify Des Moines from winning the next round of Trials bidding.

To be fair, the fields were not of national championships quality, as is common in the off-year.  But Indy's attendance in 2006, with similar heat issues, was only 2,000 less, and no one thought Carroll Stadium warranted another Olympic Trials due to a strong fan base.

Jen Suhr is back to top form.  In just her second meet back after a one-year injury hiatus, she won the pole vault and took some shots at her own American Record.  I didn't think she had it in her yet; I'm glad I'm wrong.

More is not better.  The weekend's events saw unprecedented levels of coverage.  The meet was on TV for seven hours, and two different websites did live webcasts.  Unfortunately, the TV coverage was of unbelievably poor quality.  Even worse, I can't say it's a new low.  It's just more of the same: no excitement about anything longer than a mile, horrible to non-existent field event coverage, and the producers prefer talking heads and replays between commercials and distance races during them, rather than the other way around.

I did not see the Runnerspace webcast, but apparently they put some accomplished announcers in the booth for those, such as Paul Swangard.  Also, the webcast during the TV broadcasts were "field event specials".  I appreciate the effort.  But how in the world is anyone supposed to watch a webcast AND the TV at the same time?  It's as if they've given up any pretense that our sport is track and field, or that the jokers who do the TV coverage could ever get it right.

Javelin throwers are BIG.  As a fan and not a journalist, I rarely meet top athletes or even get to see them up close.  Javelinists get such little attention that you don't get to see them on screen much.  And, when you do, they're always on the field surrounded by no one but other throwers.  So, when I got to meet Breaux Greer a few years ago my first thought was "Damn, he's big".  Not shot-putter or hammer-thrower big, but a well-muscled well-proportioned guy who is just 10% to 20% bigger than your normal athlete.

Ditto for new javelin AR holder Kara Patterson.  The woman who does post-competition interviews for ESPN is almost always taller than the athletes.  Not with Patterson, whose big and muscular upper body was striking on camera.  Yet she still looks feminine to me, whatever the heck "feminine" means.  It certainly does not mean weak.

Track and field is treated just like the NFL and the NBA playoffs.  In that ESPN has broken into all of these broadcasts to show the final innings of a no-hitter.  On Friday night, the end of the men's 5k and all of the men's 100 were cut off in favor of Edwin Jackson's eight-walk no-hit performance.  Turns out they are contractually obligated to do so, and took pains to replay the missed portions multiple times on Saturday and Sunday.

USATF rolled out part of its Project 30.  It's mostly a big pile of money for athlete funding, directed at those who are financially struggling but good shots at medaling in 2012.  But all the athletes had to sign with Nike, so those with other companies were left out in the cold.  Of the 31 athletes in the program, eighteen were already with Nike.  This made some observers question just how much new money there really was, and whether there was undue influence by Nike.

I'm looking at it from a different perspective: grants to athletes are not the most effective use of federation money.  Grants to training groups are.  The Oregon TC.  The World Throws Center.  The Mammoth Track Club.  John Cook's training group.  The old Santa Monica TC.  Mac Wilkin's throws group up at Concordia.  These places are where the not-quite-good-enough athletes make huge steps forward.  If I had $1 million to improve US distance running, I'd start up ten more Hanson's Distance Projects, and I think we'd have depth second only to Kenya.

Who's #1 in the 400?  LaShawn Merritt famously shot himself in the foot.  Jeremy Wariner hasn't been up to his own standard, and was a DNF yesterday.  David Neville beat Wariner early but scratched in the semis.  Angelo Taylor has run some good races, but only dabbles in the event.  Calvin Smith looked good early in the season but has really fallen off since then.  Ditto for Tavaris Tate.  So it fell to journeyman Greg Nixon to win yesterday.  Kudos to him--he put up the world leader--but the event as a whole isn't setting the world on fire.

USATF is thinking outside the box: good.  I don't know anything about it besides the press release, but USATF had a "member appreciation weekend", which included a hospitality tent at the stadium and other goodies for USATF members.  This is new thinking.  Previously, membership in USATF was reserved for athletes, coaches, administrators and officials.  The member appreciation weekend potentially adds another type of member: fan.  The idea of USATF having a booster club is long overdue. 

I'm shocked at how few college track/XC programs have their own booster clubs, and even more shocked at how few do anything for their members.  So far as I know, only Ohio State's Olympian Club makes its members feel special, with pre-meet tailgate parties and reserved seating at home meets.

On Friday night I worked a fund-raiser for my cross-country team at the Toledo Speedway, our local stop on the ARCA circuit.  At the table next to ours was the Michigan Auto Racing Fan Club,signing people up and selling hats and shirts, and we weren't even in Michigan.  Does US track have a fan club?  No.  It's high time that we do.

USATF is thinking outside the box: bad.  CEO Doug Logan mentioned the idea of a track reality show.  Ugh.  The whole point of reality TV is that it is not complimentary to the people on it.  Maybe it could be done well and drive some interest, but I am not confident.

Yours truly is still in the hunt.  I entered the weekend in second place in the USATF Pick N' Win Game, and at one point I was first.  Now I'm fourth.  I was eight points out of first, now I'm six points out.  First place wins $2,000, second is $150, and so on down to $50 for tenth.  Unless I have a bang-up day at the Pre Classic, I think I'm going to win a nice dinner instead of a new computer.

Some people know how to run races and some people don't.  The USA has some pretty good milers, but even more impressive to me is how tactically aware they are.  You lead the second and third laps and you usually are well back of the winner, but Leo Manzano darn near won after doing so.  Lopez Lomong is just as savvy and came up for the win.   On the women's side we've got great depth and similarly good tacticians in Anna Pierce and Shannon Rowbury, first and third in the championships.  While Erin Donahue doesn't quite have the talent to run as fast as the others, she does know how to make the most of a slow race and took second on Saturday.

And then there's Bridget Franek.  I hesitate to call her out, as I have a distant but personal connection to her family, but she's a professional athlete now and it comes with the territory.  She's tough as nails, but I have yet to see her run with any plan besides overpowering her opponents.  She was outfoxed today and got eaten alive.  Had I been smart enough to listen to my doubts and pick Lisa Aguilera to win (who did), I'd be tied for first in the fantasy league.

Friday, June 25, 2010

What to learn from the World Cup

My brother is basically as into soccer...excuse me, football, as I am into track.  Athletics.  Whatever.  As he currently works from home rather than the office, and has some flexibility in his schedule, he's in football nirvana this month.  While I'm not terribly interested in the minutia of, say, Paraguay versus Slovakia, I have found the U.S. team's performance rather compelling.

Yesterday he sent a link to a column at about the World Cup, media, culture, and so forth.
For weeks a multi-front soccer culture war has been raging in the blogosphere. But one goal by the man who just staked a pretty good claim to the title of " greatest player in the history of U.S. soccer," Landon Donovan, should permanently change the terms of debate.
Roughly speaking, two overlapping propaganda wars have been raging on the Internet with respect to what soccer in the U.S. means.

The first is explicitly political. Social conservatives see the slow rise of soccer's popularity in the U.S. as unwanted proof of increasing multicultural diversity -- collateral damage from immigration, legal or illegal. With each new triumph by the U.S. team, the dream of American "exceptionalism" dies a little death. Glenn Beck doesn't even think Americans should watch the World Cup, lest they betray their patriotic duty. And while the left isn't as explicitly ridiculous on their side of this ledger, you do sometimes hear a whiff of the converse: that the growing signs of soccer prominence in the U.S. are supposed to signify a long-overdue dismantling of U.S. superpower ideological primacy. Since at least the end of World War II, the U.S. has exported its culture to the rest of the world -- soccer's rise is the revenge of the imperialized, or more, generously, signifies what one of my tweeps just called America's "return to the community of nations."

Then there's the parallel sports-fan-in-a-bar perennial. For many Americans, soccer just seems boring, an exercise in meaningless Brownian motion, as an acquaintance of mind recently observed. Scoring is minimal, strategy is inscrutable - heck, there isn't even time to grab a beer during a commercial! How can a zero-zero tie possibly be described as "thrilling?" More people watched college football's Outback Bowl than the Slovenia-U.S. match. In riposte, there are no shortage of soccer evangelists declaring that Americans just don't get the "beautiful game," the clear implication being that soccer-haters are boors who must be distracted by pinball excitement and fireworks to have any fun. One side says the game is stupid, the other side says its the fans who are dumb.
We, as track fans, would love to have this kind of back-and-forth. The real question is: how do we create it?

I could talk about how track & field is an international sport, and Real Americans don't care about the rest of the world.  Or that the two values most closely associated with track--individualism and diversity--are values that Americans profess to hold but don't at all.  But I don't really think the culture wars have a whole lot to do with soccer. Glenn Beck's followers are told to hate it, but they're the Walt Kowalskis of the USA; they hate everything.  Unabashed liberals like Keith Olbermann have no use for the World Cup either.  Like everything in the USA, culture wars are a diversion, and what really drives everything that happens is business.

In 2009, ESPN launched a channel in the UK.  They just happened to land the broadcast rights to the Premiere League, the single-most popular sports league on the planet.  They have invested heavily in soccer, and are willing to take a short-term loss on US broadcasts if they think they can build enough of a fan base to make it back and then some.  Also, there are two Fox Soccer Channels, run by foreign-owned News Corp, which owns the rights to all the other English pro leagues.  These two media conglomerations are the largest in the world, they both show soccer overseas, and they want to add to their fan base by going after the USA.

I'm not sure whether the mainstream media's current fascination with soccer mirrors a real uptick in broad-based interest, or if it's just the usual navel-gazing media echo chamber.  Entertainment (and sports fall into that category) always tries to guess what the people want and then give it to them.  But in this case, ESPN is taking a different approach.  They know what they want people to want, and they're giving it to them in mass quantities whether they like it or not.

And more and more people are liking it.  Because if you show people a sport and do it well and treat viewers like reasonably intelligent adults, people will get interested in the sport.  This is exactly how curling becomes a cult hit during every Winter Olympics.

Does the same approach work for track? We don't know because we've never tried it*.  We don't show people a track meet.  Ever.  Rather, we show them a lot of talking heads occasionally interrupted by a race.  Watch any meet coverage and count the number of races shown in the first 20 minutes; if the total is three, they're really moving things along.  We certainly don't show the viewers a track and field meet, ignoring half of the entire sport.  And the producers are terrified of showing more than four consecutive laps of any race, as if the viewers are narcoleptics.  (Note that VISA Championship Series meets on ESPN are time-buys paid for by USATF.)  Honestly, the Top Ten List dig that it "doesn't have all the heart-pounding action of a five-hour baseball game" is far more applicable to track broadcasts than to soccer broadcasts.
*exceptions: Big Ten Network, 1992 TripleCast

Rest assured that if ESPN got the rights to the next Olympics, and decided they needed to drive up interest in track & field, they would do it right.  They are professionals.  Track and field, by and large, is a sport run by political bodies and in the antiquated model of a non-profit.  Among the least-used phrases in our sport is "it's not personal, it's just business".  It is to our detriment.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Sunday Evening Decathlete

Quite a few years ago, ABC used to have a few midweek NFL games late in the season. They called it "Monday Night Football: Special Thursday Edition". Well, this is the special Monday edition. Which is OK, because this is supposed to be the track version of Monday-morning quarterbacking. What did we learn this week?

NCAA Regionals are staying put, for next year at least. And as much as Vin Lananna hates them, it's not stopping him from bidding on the West regional. They'll get it. As for the East, I have no idea. I've got a few suggestions to make the process a bit nicer: cut down the entries to 32 per event, and only qualify 8 to the NCAA "final round" at Des Moines.

Coaches are mad at USATF. Until now, I've steered clear of this whole issue. A month ago, USATF announced a new "coaches registry" that requires, among other things, criminal background checks, signing off on a code of conduct, and a $35 biennial fee. If you don't go along, you get no credentials at USATF events (such as this week's nationals) and you're not eligible for USATF or USOC compensation. James Dunaway and Larry Eder circulated an editorial titled Has USATF Declared War on Coaches?, USATF Pres Stephanie Hightower saw need to respond herself, and it's been wondered if the absence of many stars from this week's USATF Championships is a response.

From my perspective, I see no reason to bitch at all. I teach and coach in a K-12 setting and the new USATF policy is far less onerous than what is regularly required from me by the Ohio Board of Education and the Ohio High School Athletic Association. As for its hurried implementation, it's a CYA move by USATF after the issues that recently came up with USA Swimming. Sure, it would be nice to have a proactive policy than a reactive one, but that's simply not America's leadership style in either the non-profit or business worlds. So kwitcherbitchen!

It's nice to have friends in high places. I was making my picks for the USATF fantasy league last weekend, and decided to call on Martin Bingisser for some help. He said he needed some time to get back to me before responding with his opinions. Little did I know why he needed the time--he was competing in the European Team Championships second division.

Charlie Brown must be Slovenian.
It would explain why so many moved to Cleveland. If a city embodies all that is emblematic of Charlie Brown, it's Cleveland.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Same Bat-Regionals

If you recall the old cheesy 1960s Batman TV show, they used to leave every cliff-hanger reminding us to tune in next time at the "same Bat-time, same Bat-channel".  We'll have the same Bat-regionals next year as this.  The USTFCCCA has the whole story. Remember, you heard it here first: regionals will not die as soon as everyone predicts.

Apparently the NCAA Cabinet knows this ain't cheap for the schools involved and that no one makes any money off this, so they're willing to look at cutting regionals. But they're also concerned about a lack of inclusiveness and want to study the current two-regional setup a bit more before abandoning it.

As to who will host them, that's anyone's guess. No one has bid yet (not surprising since there was some doubt as to whether they'd even happen) and it's not a particularly appealing process to go through. I'd go if Ohio State bids, but that's doubtful. They hosted 2008 USATF Junior Championships, and athletic bigwigs thought Jesse Owens Stadium would sell out. Coach Robert Gary told me that as a result they're not particularly enthused about bidding on big track meets right now.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

New Collegiate Conference Alignments

After a lot of bluster about what might happen, this week it appears that the game of musical chairs among the various college conferences is done, at least for now. Nebraska moves to the Big 10 (12), Colorado and Utah go to the Pac 10 (12), Boise State goes to the Mountain West. I really expected to see the demise of the Big 12 (10), but it lives on.

From a track and field perspective, there are only a few interesting developments. One is that Nebraska's men's program will likely thrash the Big 10 (12) from the day they join until the day the rest of the conference gets tired of it and figures out how to up its game. And while Colorado won't make much of an impact on the Pac-10 during track season, it will make the Pac-10 cross country championships into a war.

Possibly the most interesting is what will happen in the Big 12 (10). Note that while Pat Henry's men's team at Texas A&M has won the last two NCAA outdoor championships, they have never won the Big 12, indoors or out. I could argue that this is an extreme case of the weirdness of track and gives rise to many of the problems we have in attracting attention, but that's for another day. What I'm interested in is whether or not a new conference alignment would change much of the pecking order in the Big 12 (10).

One change is that it gets A LOT easier to score in the distance races. Colorado scored 29 points in the 5k and 10k alone, and if they had been absent the eighth and final scoring place in the 10k wouldn't have been 29:39 but 30:43. Much of Nebraska's strength comes from technical events, the throws and hurdles and the like; the hammer throw in particular would be much different without the Huskers. Also, if you exclude Colorado or Nebraska, there were only six decathletes in the whole conference.

The standings from the 2010 Big 12 outdoor Championships...

1. Nebraska 118
2. Oklahoma 114
3. Texas A&M 110
4. Texas Tech 77
5. Baylor 63
6. Colorado 57
7. Texas 56
8. Kansas 53
9. Oklahoma State 47
10. Missouri 44
11. Kansas State 40
12. Iowa State 39

I rescored it by deleting Colorado and Nebraska and moving athletes up. New scores:
1. Oklahoma 144
2. Texas A&M 131.5
3. Texas Tech 92
4. Texas 74
5. Baylor 73
6. Kansas 69.5
7. Kansas State 62
8. Iowa State 59
9. Missouri 55
10. Oklahoma State 52

So the absence of Nebraska would not have helped A&M at all. While moving up one spot in the standings, they'd actually be further away from the title--eight points with Nebraska/Colorado, twelve and a half without. Now, this is only one year, and Henry's strategy might change in the absence of these two schools. But I think it highlights how one-dimensional the Aggies' program was this year. Sprints, hurdles, horizontal jumps, and not a whole lot else.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Sunday Evening Decathlete

What did we learn this week?

The big winner at the NCAA championships was Hayward Field. The meet broke the two-year-old attendance record with a four-day total of 45,847, capped by a standing-room-only final day crowd of 12,812. The place was loud and rocking for a number of races, but most particularly for the men's 1500 meters and the women's 4x400 relay. During the latter, the announcers could barely be heard on the CBS telecast.

Texas A&M came up big when it counted. For the second straight year, the Aggies completed a sweep of the men's and women's titles. They didn't make it easy on themselves, as the men dropped the baton in the 4x100 relay and the women were hurt by Gabby Mayo's injury which took her out of three events. Despite these setbacks, they still managed to pull off the wins.

Florida head coach Mike Holloway made a questionable decision. With the 4x400 approaching, the Gators' Christian Taylor was in fourth in the long jump. Taylor had been expected to battle for the win but was sitting on six points. He was a key member of the 4x400 relay, but Holloway decided to let him continue jumping and sub for him in the relay. His sub added about two seconds to the Gators' relay, more than the distance between third (where they finished) and first (where Texas A&M finished). Taylor didn't move up in the long jump and the Gators lost the championship by a lone point. Holloway will blame a likely mismeasure in the shot put--despite the fact that impartial observers said it wasn't enough to change the order of finish in the event--but his calculated gamble is where the meet was won and lost.

Oregon shit the bed. The Ducks' mens team was picked for third going into the meet, and faced an uphill battle for the title. Yet some stumbles by Florida and Texas A&M left it in reach. The Ducks were expected to score between 10 and 15 points between the javelin and long jump, but got zilch between the two. Jav favorite Cyrus Hostetler didn't even get into the finals. Ten points from those would have been enough to hoist the big trophy for first. Add in the substandard performance from five second-tier runners in the 800, 5k and 10k, who scored a single point between them, and it's obvious the Ducks threw away the meet.

On the women's side it was even worse. Track & Field News rated the meet a tossup between Oregon and Texas A&M, while The Oregonian called the Ducks a strong favorite. TAMU had that major injury to Gabby Mayo while UO had none, but the Aggies won by fifteen points. "Choke" is a strong term, but I don't know what else to call it. Which calls into question...

Is Vin Lananna that great of a coach? Make no mistake, the man is very good at what he does. His last two job titles in D-I have been "Director of Track & Field". Under his tenure, Hayward Field has seen record attendances and excitement about track in Eugene has reached levels not seen for a quarter-century or more. When he was at Stanford he built a fan base from nothing, which after his departure has returned to nothing, and was this close to getting the IAAF World Championships in the USA, the closest thing to an impossible task there is in domestic track.

But this weekend's performance leaves me thinking his coaching skills could be improved. Both he and TAMU's Pat Henry bitched and moaned at every opportunity about the regional qualifying, but they took markedly different tones: Henry said it was bad for track, while Lananna questioned why his athletes had to tire themselves by going through it. His negativity clearly trickled down to his athletes and I'm certain it had a detrimental effect on their performance.

In the men's 800 heats, Travis Thompson made a major tactical mistake by leading his heat to a fast pace. Teammate Elijah Greer was in the heat, and stood an outside chance at qualifying to the final, but the tactics didn't play to his strength and he was the fastest non-qualifier of the day. Lananna was quite upset, saying "Why our guy rabbited the first heat is beyond me". Vin was pissed after the fact, whereas someone like John Wooden would have been ahead of the curve by making Thompson reiterate the goal every day for a week, and Bill Bowerman would have given him daily threats of castration.

Then there was the long jump. Ashton Eaton was entered and was expected to score some points for the Ducks, but his calves were so sore that he couldn't manage more than one attempt. Sore from what? The previous day's decathlon, in which he took a shot at the Collegiate Record. While Ron Bellamy of the Eugene Register-Guard didn't mention any specific cause, others have pointed to the 1500 in particular, in which Eaton ran the fastest time of the day and came up just short of the record. Was that necessary? No. He won by 656 points, and could have jogged it and still won comfortably. You can't fault the kid for trying, but someone has to be the adult and tell him to dial it back, lest he leave his teammates out in the cold by bombing the next morning's long jump...which he did.

As far as the javelin throwers, the other distance runners, and almost the entire women's team, they just came out flat. Only in the 1500 did they exceed expectations, and even there Zoe Buckman inexplicably failed to make the final.

How many NCAA outdoor track championships have Lananna's teams won? One. Pat Henry's teams have nineteen. John Wooden had Sam Gilbert and Vin Lananna has Phil Knight, but Wooden delivered the titles.

Angela Bizzarri...bizarre. The Illinois senior was riding a three-championship winning streak, taking the 5k last year, the cross title last fall, and the 3k title at this year's indoor meet. She followed co-favorite and collegiate 10k record holder Lisa Koll's tough pace for the first nine laps...and then stepped off the track and slumped on the grass before getting up and walking off. She did not speak to reporters immediately afterward, but later said "I just felt myself get too nervous for the race and couldn't really calm down and just didn't get in the right mindset during the race".

Do we have an Alan Webb-style head case here? Maybe. Others point to the effects of 90 miles a week (Koll) versus 60 (Bizzarri). And I was mulling various thoughts about how being raised on the cul-de-sacs of Mason, Ohio, does not teach you much about overcoming difficulty. But I think it really comes down to a lack of pre-race preparation. Bizzarri was not a favorite going into any of her three national titles, relying on running as comfortably as is possible in championship racing before going to the fore late in the race. This is exactly how she beat Koll at the indoor meet this year, and it would have been foolish to expect Koll to allow the same thing to happen again. The two were running 15:15 pace when Bizzarri dropped out, which would have been a 20-second PR. She had to know that if she went with Koll and tried for the win she'd be entering the twilight zone, but mentally she was not up to the task.

The internet has spoiled us. I didn't post anything this week because I wasn't at home. I went to Grand Tetons National Park, which to an Easterner is a surreal landscape of big skies, near-desert flora, 13,000 foot peaks rising almost straight from the valley floor, and large animals I'd never seen before. As I was driving the winding two-lane road up to Signal Mountain to get the 360-degree views from its peak, a storm came through and blanketed the area with fog (or a cloud, whichever you want to call it). Surprisingly, there were two things at the top of the mountain: a pit toilet and a cell phone tower. iPhones in hand, my wife and I waited out the storm...and I was momentarily annoyed that I couldn't watch the NCAA championship webcast because the iPhone doesn't use compatible software. In my car. On the top of a mountain. In the middle of a national park. Dozens and dozens of miles away from anything that could even remotely be called a town.

CBS only does this because they have to. The Saturday broadcast wasn't what it could be, and featured the same cast of slobbering idiots--Larry Rawson and Carol Lewis. They totally skipped mentioning Ryan Whiting's near-miss of the shot put record, and all the other field events as well. Highlights of the previous days were ignored save a bit of decathlon fluff. My cable provider doesn't carry CBS College Sports (and I couldn't have seen it if they did as I was in transit from Jackson Hole), but my brother said it was deplorable. Nor did they bring out the HD cameras. The webcasts that CBS Sports did were also less than they could be: no announcer, or bad ones, and poor camera angles. As was said at the T&FN discussion boards, "it would be no more effort (or expense) to do it right than to do it wrong." But we all know CBS only does this because they have to. They get March Madness, the NCAA probably requires them to broadcast all the other championships too.

Conference realignment gets started for real. Colorado started with jumping to the Pac-10, which should make its cross-country championships renamed "NCAA championships, round one". Nebraska is going to the Big Ten, which means they'll beat the living crap out of the conference's track teams until the rest of them up their game. Everything else is up in the air, except this: anyone who says Texas is going to the SEC doesn't know how theses things work.

Can't pass this one up, even though it doesn't have a thing to do with track. The current issue of the Atlantic Monthly is "The Ideas Issue". A sidebar listing off some modest tongue-in-cheek proposals for the year ahead suggests the formation of "The Ice-T Party, supporting gun rights and a return to other hip-hop values".

The Diamond League showed us why it works. Saturday's adidas Grand Prix in New York was one of the deepest non-championship meets ever held in the USA. The field event depth was like nothing we'd ever seen, as the very best in the world showed up for the men's pole vault, triple jump and javelin throw and the women's shot put. In the triple, France's Teddy Tamgho put up the best distance the world has seen in the last twelve years. The other field events--the women's pole vault and triple jump--were still pretty good, and the running events brought unusually good fields across the board, even without a highly anticipated Bolt-Gay matchup. There was a great "three event challenge", a sort of a mini-heptathlon showdown between Jessica Ennis and Hyleas Fountain.

NBC is amateur hour. Of course, those tremendous field events were not even mentioned once on the NBC telecast. They still can't get field event leaderboard graphics on screen, as if they were still in the 1960s. Downtime between running events was completely wasted. When the Omega commercial transmits the excitement of a fake track meet better than the real broadcast does of a live one, you've got serious problems.

And here's the thing: the meet produced a vastly superior TV feed which was sent to the rest of the world. We didn't get to see it. They think we actually like it this way! The level of ignorance of the public desire is stunning.

Pray to every God you can think of that ESPN wins the next round of Olympic rights bidding. Whereas NBC is made up of amateurs, and their last-place standing in the network ratings shows it, ESPN is professional. Ever since investing heavily in soccer in general and the World Cup in particular, they've worked hard to convince Americans they love the Boring Game. What? I got it wrong? Sorry, that's the Beautiful Game. UEFA live and in HD two years ago. Club highlights all over SportsCenter. Major prime-time World Cup preview show this weekend, with the lion's share of the time spent on non-American teams. Plucked the world's best English-language soccer announcer away from the UK. If ESPN brings us the 2016 Olympics, rest assured they'll give a similar royal treatment to the Diamond League, VISA series and the World Championships. And we will forever be rid of Carol Lewis.

I'm doing OK in the Pick 'N Win Game. Yes, that's me in second place. Eat my dust, muthafuckas!

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Sunday Evening Decathlete

What did we learn this week?

I don't know anything.  I didn't think the 5k American Record was going to be broken at the Diamond League meet in Oslo, and if it did I didn't think Bernard Lagat had it in him.  Wrong.  I thought Carmelita Jeter would beat LaShauntea Moore in the 200 meters at the same meet.  Wrong again.

About that Oslo meet... David Lekuta Rudisha kicks ass.  21 years old, ran 1:42.01 on Friday, and the season is just getting started.  Abubaker Kaki was supposed to be the new star in the 800 meters two years ago, but Rudisha is the man now.

The NCAA Championships at Oregon will be well attended. Yeah, we already knew that in general.  But in particular, the number of tickets sold already exceeds the NCAA attendance record.  Two years ago, Drake brought in 41,187 over the four days (despite half of Des Moines being under water) to break the old attendance record by over 6,000. reports that only 4,675 tickets remain unsold for this week's championships, and since Hayward Field's seating has been expanded to "about 12,000", that means somewhere in the range of 42,000 to 43,000  tickets have already been sold.

State track meets are well attended.  Again, we already knew this, but here's a new example.  Yesterday's Ohio championships, which is three separate divisional championships held in succession, twice required an evacuation of the stands due to lightning.  The heavy rain that came with it made sitting in the stands less than ideal.  But here's the crowd later in the day:
and that doesn't show the backstretch or the mass of people standing at track-level around the first turn.  There had to be at least 8,000 people in the stadium right then.  Any college, even Oregon, would be tremendously happy to have such a crowd in bad weather. Most would be ecstatic to have it in any weather; Arkansas didn't have this many for the final day of last year's NCAA championships.

Small towns are the best places for sports.  Example #1:  A college teammate of mine has been coaching at his alma mater, a well-off Toledo suburban high school, but unfortunately was forced out last fall (through no fault of his own, I should add).  Yesterday he told me he got a new job as assistant track coach and cross country coach at the high school in Delta (population 2,930), a rural town about 15 miles outside the western edge of the Toledo suburbs.  He will be formally introduced to the community at a public event this week, a la Norman Dale in Hoosiers.  For cross country!

Sometimes it seems like someone is looking out for you, but you wonder why it's you.  I dawdled going home from yesterday's state championships, spending an hour at my sister-in-law's house before getting on the road for the 2+ hour drive.  If I hadn't, I would have driven through this:
MILLBURY, Ohio – A tornado unleashed a "war zone" of destruction in northwest Ohio, destroying dozens of homes and an emergency services building as a line of storms killed at least seven people ...But most of the worst was reserved for a 100-yard-wide, 7-mile-long strip southeast of Toledo now littered with wrecked vehicles, splintered wood and family possessions.
In two weeks I was supposed to manage a low-key track meet at Lake High School in Millbury. School officials haven't gotten back to me, as I'm fairly low on their priority list right now, but I assume the meet is off.
The tornado ripped the roof and back wall off Lake High School's gymnasium about 11 p.m. Saturday, several hours before the graduation ceremony was supposed to begin there.
...Two buses were tossed on their sides and another was thrown about 50 yards, landing on its top near the high school's football field. More than 10 hours later, its right turn signal was still blinking.
...One of the victims was the father of Lake High School's valedictorian, said Tim Krugh, president of the school district's board...Neighbors said the house of the valedictorian's family was destroyed, and all that was left was a basement filled with water.
This is not dangerous-weather territory. No hurricanes, tsunamis, mudslides, wildfires, flash floods, or earthquakes. It isn't "tornado alley", either, but once every 20 or 30 years we get something that reminds us of the frailty of human life.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Ohio State meet: Throws

This is the crowd for the throws alone--on a rainy day--and I couldn't fit all of the spectators in the frame.

Ohio High School Championships

So how often does a track meet cause a traffic jam? It does on every first Saturday in June here in Columbus.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Track on Old Sitcoms

Tomorrow is the Bislett Games from Oslo, the third stop on the IAAF's Diamond League tour.  Tape-delay coverage begins at 8:00 PM on Universal Sports, should you be fortunate enough to have that channel available to you.

Right before the show begins, though, you'll have an opportunity to see more track. At 7:30, TV Land will show the episode of Sanford and Son in which Fred signs up for the decathlon in the Senior Olympics.

I've always liked Sanford and Son. While All in the Family was probably the greatest American sitcom ever made, it loses something in the translation. It's still funny, but it was very related to the time in which it was made. Sanford and Son, on the other hand, is a double anachronism: not only is it more than thirty-five years old, it was out of step with its time even back then. Fred, Grady, Bubba and especially Aunt Esther all didn't belong in the 70s, so it's a great show to watch in reruns.

This particular episode isn't the height of Redd Foxx's comedic abilities, but the scene where Grady bosses Fred around as his coach is some great physical humor. It's worth your thirty minutes.

Of course, the best treatment of track and field on old sitcoms comes to us in two parts from The Cosby Show.  In "Back to the Track, Jack" (1985), Cliff agrees to run in a masters' track meet to settle a decades-old dispute from a college mile relay race.  Trying to get back into shape leads to top-notch Bill Cosby old-man physical humor.  Another rematch is set in "Off to the Races" (1986), this time in the Penn Relays, in which both character Cliff Huxtable and actor Bill Cosby are caught by surprise when the opposing team is anchored by a ringer.  Both episodes feature Olympic medalist Josh Culbreath as Cliff's college rival, and and Larry "The Mighty Burner" James as a relay runner.

Oslo Diamond League Preview

The meet will be webcast live staring at 2 PM EDT at will also stream the meet.

TV coverage is at 8 PM Friday on Universal Sports, and at 2 PM Saturday on CBC.

1:15 PM: Women's Discus Throw
Leading entries: #1 Yarelis Barrios, #4 Nadine Muller, #7 Sandra Perkovic, #8 Stephanie Brown Trafton, #9 Nicoleta Grasu, #10 Yarisley Collado, #12 Aretha Thurmond, #16 Zaneta Glanc
Analysis: Barrios is the Diamond League points leader and hasn't lost this year.

1:50 PM: Men's Pole Vault
Leading Entries: #1 Steven hooker, #2 Malte Mohr, #3 Alexander Straub, #4 Renaud Lavillenie, #5 Steven Lewis, #6 Derek Miles, #8 Aleksandr Gripich, #9 Przemyslaw Czerwinski, #13 Maksym Mazuryk, #14 Michel Balner
Analysis: Hooker inexplicably bombed last time out in Shanghai. Look for him to get even with Mohr, who came out the winner there.

2:40 PM: Men's Shot Put
Leading Entries: #1 Christian Cantwell, #4 Ralf Bartels, #5 Dylan Armstrong, #6 Reese Hoffa, #8 Pavel Lyzhyn, #9 Tomasz Majewski, #14 Adam Nelson
Analysis: Armstrong is on a bit of a hot streak and broke the Canadian record yesterday. I think Cantwell is still too much for him, though.

3:43 PM: Women's Long Jump
Leading Entries: #2 Olga Kucherenko, #3 Darya Klishina, #4 Funmi Jimoh, #5 Keila Costa, #7 Naide Gomes, #8 Ksenija Balta, #11 Elena Sokolova, #15 Brianna Glenn
Analysis: Kucherenko put up the year's best mark last week.

3:49 PM: Women's High Jump
Leading Entries: #1 Blanka Vlašic, #2 Chaunté Howard Lowe, #3 Ruth Beitia, #5 Svetlana Shkolina, #6 Emma Green, #7 Levern Spencer, #9 Irina Gordeeva
Analysis: Lowe is riding a good streak, beating the nearly-unbeatable Vlašic and then breaking the American record. Vlašic is considered nearly unbeatable for a reason, though. This is likely to be a very interesting competition.

4:04 PM: Women's 400 meters
Leading Entries: #2 Amantle Montsho, #3 Novlene Williams-Mills, #4 Debbie Dunn, #5 Shericka Williams, #8 Christine Ohuruogu, #12 Monica Hargrove, #13 Denisa Rosolova
Analysis: Toss-up. No strong favorite here.

4:15 PM: Men's 400m Hurdles
Leading Entries: #2 Kerron Clement, #3 Bershawn Jackson, #4 Isa Phillips, #6 L.J. van Zyl, #11 David Greene, #12 Justin Gaymon, #14 Michael Tinsley
Analysis: Probably a homestretch battle between the top two Americans.

4:20: Men's Javelin Throw
Leading Entries: #1 Andreas Thorkildsen, #2 Petr Frydrych, #3 Tero Pitkämäki, #5 Guillermo Martinez, #7 Vadims Vasilevskis, #11 Teemu Wirkkala, #12 Ari Mannio, #17 Antti Ruuskanen
Analysis: The place will go wild every time Norway's Thorkildsen steps up to throw, especially if he is winning as expected.

4:25 PM: Women's Steeplechase
Leading Entries: #1 Gladys Jerotich Kipkemoi, #2 Milcah Chemos Cheywa, #3 Lydia Rotich, #4 Sofia Assefa, #7 Katarzyna Kowalska, #13 Mekdes Bekele, #18 Sophia Duarte
Analysis: Kipkemoi won fairly easily last time out in Shanghai, in a time superior to everyone else's PR save Cheywa.

4:45 PM: Women's 100m Hurdles
Leading Entries: #1 Lolo Jones, #2 Priscilla Lopes-Schliep, #6 Perdita Felicien, #7 Delloreen Ennis-London, #8 Danielle Carruthers, #13 Vonette Dixon, #14 Carolin Nytra, #19 Christina Vukicevic
Analysis: Jones has been her usual inconsistent self lately, while Lopes-Schliep is steady as a rock. They're far better than anyone else, though. If Jones has it together she wins, otherwise it's the Canadian.

5:00 PM: Men's 100 meters
Leading Entries: #2 Asafa Powell, #11 Michael Frater, #14 Richard Thompson, #15 Lerone Clarke, #16 Churandy Martina, #20 Trell Kimmons
Analysis: If there's one thing the Diamond League has failed to do, it's get the best men's sprinters to face off. But this is only the third meet, so maybe these are just undercards. In any case, Powell is the class of the field.

5:10 PM: Men's 800 meters
Leading Entries: #1 David Lekuta Rudisha, #5 Abubaker Kaki, #7 Alfred Kirwa Yego, #8 Marcin Lewandowski, #11 Bram Som, #12 Augustine Choge, #18 Adam Kszczot, #21 Michael Rimmer
Analysis: There's talk of a possible World Record here. Rudisha and Kaki are great runners, but that record is an awfully tough one. If the pace is too agressive, the two favorites could fade and open the door for an upset.

5:20 PM Men's 5000 meters
Leading Entries: #1 Eliud Kipchoge, #2 Vincent Chepkok, #3 Edwin Churuiyot Soi, #5 Imane Merga, #13 Chris Solinsky, #14 Tariku Bekele, Bernard Lagat (#8 at 3k)
Analysis: Your usual Bislett Games long-distance clash of the titans will be renewed. From a US perspective, there's also the possibility of an American record, but I don't think Lagat has much of a chance at it. If it happens it will go to Solinsky.

5:40 PM: Women's 200 meters
Leading Entries: #5 Carmelita Jeter, #6 LaShauntea Moore, #12 Sheri Ann Brooks, #16 Cydonie Mothersill
Analysis: This is a bit out of Jeter's comfort zone, but she's a much better sprinter than Moore.

5:50 PM: Men's Mile
Leading Entries: #2 Deresse Mekonnen, #4 Asbel Kiprop, #5 William Biwott Tanui, #9 Mekonnene Gebremedhin, #16 Gideon Gathimba, #18 Geoffrey Kipkoech Rono, #21 Juan Carlos Higuero
Analysis: Kiprop is probably the best miler of the bunch but runs dumb from time to time, such as in Shanghai. I don't think he's going to get burned twice in a row, though.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Your Track Vault Pick of the Week

Fifty years ago today, Herb Elliott and Dyrol Burleson were on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Now a new and different Elliott is on tour, a brief trip this time, to California, where he has a schedule of three races at 1,500 meters and a mile. Only one of these is very important: the mile he will run this week at the Modesto Relays against a field that includes Dyrol Burleson (see cover), the youngster from the University of Oregon who is the best miler America has ever produced.

Rethinking Collegiate Regionals and Nationals

Recently Texas A&M head coach Pat Henry was interviewed by Flotrack about last weekend's NCAA preliminary rounds, and he did not have nice things to say about it. He said it was bad for track & field. This was discussed at Let's Run, and I responded by saying "by which he means 'bad for Pat Henry'."

I said this because I've heard the same coaches bitching about whatever regionals system we've had ever since they were put into place in 2003. And most people with important jobs in D-I athletic programs are nakedly self-serving, as it's an unwritten portion of the job description. (Personally, I think the constant airing of complaints is also bad for college track, as sportswriters and potential spectators are told that there's no reason to pay attention to the regional meets. We need to encourage attention, not discourage it.)

But, unusual for Let's Run, the ensuing discussion was illuminating and productive. As I read and thought and looked at the evidence, I came to the conclusion that Pat Henry really is in favor of emphasizing team competition. All of Texas A&M's home meets were scored in one way or another, and Henry brought his team to one of the few outdoor scored invitationals, the Pepsi Challenge in Eugene. Furthermore, it has been said that he suggested a team championship at the nationals eerily similar to one I recently proposed--one that would be much more difficult for his teams to win than our current national championship system.

The prevailing opinion, though, is that we won't be arguing about regionals any longer because a new proposal has gained near-universal acceptance among the coaches. Dubbed the "Wilson Plan", after the Minnesota coach who came up with it, it takes 32 athletes in each event directly to the nationals, some by virtue of marks and some by virtue of winning their conference championships. It's thought that this will be what we do next year.

I wouldn't presume that regionals are dead, though. No one would have predicted we'd have this year's system. I think I'm beginning to understand the thought processes of the NCAA Championshisp Cabinet, the group from whence it came. You see, in every other sport, there is some system of playoffs or regional competition leading into the NCAA championship. You can actually see some form of what the NCAA's administrators want when you look at these nifty brackets. The assumption that outdoor track & field, which is relatively important among the NCAA's 23 different sports, would be allowed to be different just because the coaches want it that way defies the "logic" of large bureaucracies.

I think we're going to have some form of regional competition for a long time. What we have now is very hard to follow, because there are "playoff brackets" for forty different events. Following those are complex and time-consuming. Neither do they address the issue that team competition is what drives interest in college track, and right now we have little more than a huge collection of individual competitions.

What kind of regional competition could heighten the importance of team competition, make regionals truly interesting, and yet not stifle the individual competition portion of track & field? I've got a few ideas.

We could use Henry's combination team/individual championship plan in the old four-region format. In each region, eight teams would qualify for the regionals based on either winning one of eight to twelve major conferences or by the results of scored meets during the season. Another sixteen athletes in each event would qualify as individuals based on whatever criteria we want, most likely a descending-order list.

Those eight teams would be allowed two athletes per event, and team scores would be tallied among those athletes only, much as we do in cross country. At the end of the meet, the top two teams qualify to the nationals, along with the top four athletes in each event not on qualifying teams. At the national championships we'd repeat the system.

In what way would this make things more interesting? The team scores at regionals would be hugely important. Finish third and you can't compete for the NCAA Championship. But more importantly, getting your team to the regionals would require competing in a few scored meets during the regular season.

Going into regionals, we'd then have an NCAA Championships selection show for track & field, as the NCAA does for about twenty other sports. National team rankings would be based not on a bunch of arithmetic as we do now, but on actual results of actual meets. Who won a meet would be the headline because it would really mean something (and because there would be a winner).

A minor technical point: I don't think I'd have the decathlon/heptathlon be part of the regionals or the team scoring. For one reason, it's not reasonable to ask a full multi-event competition out of a young athlete three times in five weeks (conference, regional, national). But also, provided that the multis are completed before the rest of the nationals begin, a decent multi-event athlete can have a big impact in an eight-team meet by scoring in several events. We want to promote this kind of team heroism, not reduce it.

So who would have qualified this year? Assuming that at least a few team-scoring meets would have been part of everyone's schedule, here's who I would have predicted for each of the old four regions. Auto qualifiers are noted.

Florida (SEC champ)
Florida State (ACC champ)
UConn (IC4A champ)
South Carolina
Virginia Tech
North Carolina
I don't think there's much doubt about which two teams would get to the nationals here, as Florida and Florida State are far better than the rest.

Notre Dame (Big East champ)
Mississippi State
Ohio State
LSU would get to the nationals easily, and I think Auburn would likely be second over Wisconsin.

Nebraska (Big 12 champ)
Minnesota (Big 10 champ)
Houston (C-USA champ)
Wichita State (MVC champ)
Texas A&M
Texas Tech
This would be a dogfight between Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas A&M.

Oregon (Pac-10 champ)
BYU (Mountain West champ)
Utah State (WAC champ)
Southern Cal
Arizona State
Cal State Northridge
Oregon and Southern Cal would have a pretty easy time of this, despite the fact that BYU is a very good team.